‘New deal’ shies away from tough questions

In her latest blog, Thrive Homes Chief Executive Elspeth Mackenzie reflects on the recent Social Housing Green Paper and whether it was a missed opportunity for real reform.

I think we all had high hopes of the long-awaited Social Housing Green Paper, which promised a ‘new deal’ for the sector and ‘fundamental reform’.

But, having scrutinised its detail and listened to some of the initial reactions to it, I feel the document falls far short.

Although it raises important issues around safety and tenant engagement, I found it disappointing in that it shies away from asking some fundamental, difficult questions facing the sector.

What struck me first and foremost was that, for a document which former housing secretary Sajid Javid described as a ‘wide-ranging review’, it has failed to go back to first principles – and, instead, is based on a series of unchallenged ‘givens’.

It skirts around some core issues, such as the tension that exists between the cost of providing and maintaining good quality homes but which are let at low, fixed rents. There is no real engagement with the basic economics of this.

And, although the green paper refers to discussion with tenants, there has been no involvement with wider society around questions such as what is appropriate social housing provision, how should it be funded and how to manage expectations.

It seems to me that the paper is missing the point of where we are at, socially and economically. There has been a shift in the government’s position on social provision, indicated by its continued support for welfare reform. But this paper seems to be a lost opportunity to enter into a similar debate around another key aspect of the welfare safety net – a home.

Lack of balance

Another aspect of the green paper that I found disappointing was its focus on ‘bad’ landlords, an emphasis on housing providers who fall short and need to be held to account through tighter regulation and controls.

No-one would argue that such poor performance is acceptable but, in my experience, the social housing sector is a very compliant one which closely adheres to the regulations and restrictions placed upon it.

So, when the paper suggests that standards for our sector should be equivalent to those for the private rented sector, I was shocked. Anyone who thinks private landlords are more compliant than social landlords is not in the real world.

I believe there should, indeed, be a set of standards for the building and maintenance of properties which applies to the whole of the rented sector, both social and private.

But the problem is that, in the social housing sector, we have one hand tied behind our backs. For instance, the government will not give us powers of access to carry out vital inspections such as annual gas safety checks.

We also need building standards that we can rely on to cover fire safety so, for instance, we can trust a fire door to be stringently tested by the manufacturer.

It appears to me that the government is trying to tackle issues where it knows it can get a result – but that means the green paper is not a balanced view of what needs to be addressed.

The paper states ‘we also want to empower residents, to give them the tools they need to hold their landlords to account’. That is absolutely right. But, from the landlords’ point of view, we need to be equipped with all the tools to do our job properly too.

So, is the green paper really challenging enough? I would suggest not. Unless we get some sort of agreement on basic fundamental issues within the sector, I suspect we are merely generating higher expectations, cost and opportunities for disappointment.